Assessments and Results
During the school year, students take informal curriculum-based assessments to help us determine the degree to which they have learned the skills up to that point in the curricula. For example, a student following our curriculum for word recognition, reading fluency and spelling takes an assessment at the end of each lesson. The student’s performance on this assessment indicates if he or she has achieved fluency in the skills covered in that lesson. If the student meets the criteria for fluency, or mastery, the teacher and student proceed to the next lesson. If the student does not, the teacher analyzes the student’s errors and develops additional practice where needed. The student continues practicing the specific skills until he or she performs them fluently.
The criteria for mastery are set by us. Our head of instruction sometimes changes the criteria, as appropriate, for individual students.
In the spring of each year, we also administer standardized achievement tests to students in grades three, six, nine and eleven and to students whose families receive educational grants. These assessments help us track how the students are progressing as compared to other students at their age and/or grade level.
On the informal curriculum-based assessments, virtually all students meet the criteria we set. If they don’t, we change certain parts of the instructional plan so they can learn the skills. Most students also show steady growth on the standardized achievement tests as the skills these tests cover are closely aligned with our curricula.
On average, students show between six months and two or more years of progress in each of the fifteen plus subtests we administer in reading, written expression and math. Some students show even greater progress and some a little less.
Some Observations from Testing and Teaching
Although our students have diverse educational needs and progress at different rates, we have observed, over time, various patterns in their academic growth. Here are some patterns we see:
First Observation — There is an apparent correlation between the degree of the student’s neuro-developmental strengths and weaknesses and the degree to which he or she progresses in those skills that tap directly into these strengths and weaknesses.
For instance, let’s say three students receive psycho-educational evaluations. Test results for the first student indicate mild deficits in phonemic awareness, paired-associate memory (phonics) and rapid naming, the three main neuro-developmental functions necessary to read fluently. Test results for the second student indicate moderate deficits in these same functions and test results for the third student indicate severe deficits.
We can predict that the first student with mild deficits will respond readily to our reading and spelling instruction. With targeted instruction and a moderate amount of practice trials, he or she will make significant progress with reasonable effort.
We can predict that the second student, the one with moderate deficits, will respond moderately well to our reading and spelling instruction. He or she will need more practice exercises to master the same skills that the first student learned; however, he or she will master them in time.
The third student with severe deficits will usually have other neuro-developmental barriers, such as attentional difficulties, working memory deficits and slow processing speed. To overcome these barriers, the student will require highly customized instruction over an extended period for him or her to make moderate progress. Furthermore, he or she will need additional coaching to learn how to apply these skills to daily living.
This third student’s instructional plan, therefore, needs to include: a) training in how to compensate for learning challenges that linger past the remedial instruction; and b) self-advocacy so he or she can carve out a successful niche in school and in life.
Second Observation — For students with mild to moderate learning barriers, there is a strong correlation between the number of practice exercises they complete in given skills and their degree of achievement.
In other words, if a student’s barriers are well managed with accommodations and the road is clear for learning, the student will make more progress with more practice and less progress with less practice. The adage “practice makes perfect” (or in this case, “the right practice makes perfect”) is true.
With these students, it makes sense to provide intensive and aggressive remediation so they can achieve enough skill to close the gap between their current skill level and actual grade level.
Third Observation — There are certain neuro-developmental functions that, if weak, respond more readily to intervention, as a rule, than other weak functions.
Research also shows what we and many other special educators see every day. Most of us will agree, for instance, that training a student to sound out and decode words is much easier than training him or her to read passages fluently, even passages that contain nothing but the words the students can fluently decode. This is because certain neuro-developmental functions, such as rapid naming, word retrieval and orthographic processing, heavily influence reading fluency but not so much decoding words in lists.
Another example is the tendency of our students with reading and spelling difficulties to make at least twice the progress in reading as they do in spelling. This is understandable considering the neuro-developmental functions involved in each. Reading decoding requires orthographic recognition(recognition of distinctive letter patterns and letter-sound associations). This function has historically lent itself well to remediation. Spelling, however, requires orthographic recall (ability to mentally see word spellings upon hearing, saying or thinking them). Mentally re-imaging word spellings is harder than recognizing them on paper.
Our standardized testing and regular, informal testing have yielded many more insights into those neuro-developmental functions that respond well to instruction and those that are more resistant. They involve such functions as working memory, long-term retrieval of information, processing speed, focal and performance control, concept understanding and reasoning
When we notice these patterns, we study the research on them to see if our observations coincide with the research findings. If so, we study the phenomenon further and investigate ways to effectively intervene. When we catch on to an effective intervention, we test it further in-house. If the intervention stands the test of time, we integrate it into our curricula and teaching approaches. This is one reason our curricula are in a continuous state of development.